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Lasell tax-case ruling is one for the textbooks

Seniors'complex subject to change

Does making the residents of its retirement village go to class exempt Lasell College from paying property tax on its apartment units?

 

That question appears headed for Middlesex Superior Court in a case that could have state -- if not national -- implications as more colleges set up retirement villages and the cash-strapped communities where they are based look for more sources of revenue.

Lasell president Thomas de Witt said the college will appeal a state ruling concerning Lasell Village, a retirement community on its Auburndale campus. The appellate tax board rejected the college's contention that the village should be exempted from property taxes on grounds that it is a charitable institution with an educational purpose.

As a result, Newton won't have to refund $400,000 Lasell paid in property taxes for fiscal year 2002.

In 2001, city officials decided that a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with the college was not appropriate, because profit-generating activities, including a computer camp, were taking place at Lasell Village.

Both sides describe the case as precedent-setting, because in their research, neither was able to find any programs in the United States similar to what Lasell Village offers.

When they moved in, the 210 residents signed an agreement to complete 450 hours of academic study a year. De Witt said Lasell faculty teach residents in a variety of subjects. Seniors can also take classes with regular students, mentoring them or working jointly on projects.

If they fail to stick to the agreement, the seniors could be asked to leave. So far, none has, the college says. Only those with a note from a doctor citing health problems are exempt. The 162-unit complex also includes a 44-bed nursing facility.

Among the village's residents are retired Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors; business executives; and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

John M. Lynch, one of the lawyers who represented Newton's Board of Assessors, laid out the city's case in a court brief.

"It is completely unjust to allow what is in essence a luxury apartment complex to escape taxation, where others less favorably situated in the city are paying their fair share of property taxes," Lynch wrote. "While Lasell may be providing a valuable service to those wealthy enough to meet income and asset tests . . . this form of addressing the needs of the elderly is simply too remote from the traditional concept of charity."

In January 2001, according to Lynch's brief, the entrance fees for Lasell Village ranged from $171,000 for a one-bedroom to $525,000 for a two-bedroom unit. Additional monthly service fees ranged from $1,650 to $3,000.

But de Witt, who said he wasn't surprised by the state's ruling against the college, said the program isn't just for wealthy seniors. He's confident the school will win on appeal.

"There is nothing like this certainly in this region or that we know of in the United States," de Witt said. "We believe we're at the cutting edge of what will define aging in the future, and we do provide a public purpose."

Marjorie Arons-Barron, a spokeswoman for Regis College in Weston, said that for the past several months, officials at that school have been talking about possibly establishing a retirement community on unused land across the street from the Wellesley Street campus.

"They are exploring ways to create a retirement community, but it is still in the exploration stage," Arons-Barron said. "It's in the exploration phase, but basically with a commitment to the community and [the college's] educational mission."

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